Unsexy, Humdrum Ceramics

My last two posts were about ancient Peruvian pottery made in the shape of people having sex. But ceramics like these are only a very small percentage of the sorts of ceramics most archaeologists deal with on a daily basis. The vast majority of pots archaeologists work with are made to look like, well, pots. And, what’s worse, they’re usually broken up in dozens of pieces. And yet, archaeologists often do crazy things for pottery, no matter how unimpressive it might be.

For example, I have recently spent between twenty and thirty hours sorting out through broken pieces of ancient West African ceramics, along with three other volunteers and our supervisor, for the Crossroads of Empires project. The pottery came from recently excavated sites, and the idea was to see whether we could put together, not necessarily whole pots, but at least pots fragments that were big enough for us to make a reasonable guess as to what they looked like when they were whole (which means that a lot of our effort was focussed on rims and decorated bits). Sort of like a really difficult jigsaw puzzle in which most pieces are missing, and those that you still have are very small and worn. Once you do find bits that fit, you just stick them together with superglue. This whole process is called “refitting”, and you can see some images of how it works on this post from the Crossroads of Empires blog.

Why do this? Quite simply, pottery lasts a very long time, more so than any other thing made and used by humans in ancient times (excluding stone tools), so, wherever archaeologists dig, they will almost certainly find some. This has led archaeologists to figure out loads of different ways they can extract information about past lives from crummy ceramic fragments. For example, an important part of the Crossroads of Empires project is figuring out which culture groups interacted with which other culture groups–so, if you can connect a particular pottery style with a particular culture group, and then you find the same style, or perhaps a similar one, at a site that is firmly associated with another culture group, then it’s likely the two groups were in contact with one another.

But the shapes, sizes and decorations of ceramics can also give us a sense of how people lived in the past, and what was important for them. An excellent example of this is Ashley’s (2010) study of ancient Ugandan pottery.

Ashley identifies three major sequences in the region’s pottery: Urewe, Transitional Urewe, and Entebbe.

Urewe ceramics are found throughout the region between 500 and 800 AD, and they are characterised by having dimpled bases. What they tell us is that, as long as they were around, people’s lives revolved mainly around their family unit, and notions of family were of central cultural value. How can we be so sure? The amount of time and effort invested in making these pots, evident in their quality, suggests that whichever context they were used for was probably a very important one. And that context was probably family meals: this we can tell from how common the pots are, but also their size. Specifically, average sizes of Urewe pottery fall well within standard measurements of domestic pottery around the world, based on an extensive cross-cultural survey carried out by Henrickson and McDonald (1983).


Urewe pot (Ashley 2010: 143).


Refitted Urewe pot (Ashley 2010: 144)

Things start changing between 800 and 1200 AD. At this time, Urewe pots are generally replaced with Transitional Urewe pots. This new type of ceramics may seem, at first, to be quite similar to their predecessors, but a closer inspection reveals that the variety in vessel forms is significantly reduced, and decorations and embellishments are much simpler. This suggests that the family is losing importance within local cultural frameworks… but in favour of what?

Transitional Urewe

Fragments of Transitional Urewe ceramics (Ashley 2010: 151). Which, I realise, compared to the previous two illustrations of Urewe pots, makes them look like they are more varied in terms of decoration, not less. Oh well. This is what I could find.

The answer may lie with Entebbe ceramics, which appear only slightly later than the first Transitional Urewe pots–that is, around 1000 AD–and stick around until about 1500 AD. Entebbe ceramics, like the original Urewe pots, are high-quality objects, which again suggests the importance of whatever context they were used for. And, in their case, this context was probably large-scale public events. This is suggested, mainly, by their huge size, and, when full, their considerable weight, which would have made them cumbersome in a humble family kitchen. Large vessels like these could have been used for long-term storage of resources (for example, to ensure one’s family against ecological instability), but it seems that the mouth of most Transitional Urewe pots is too wide for this function, as it would have made them difficult to seal (which you want to do to prevent spillage, evaporation, or invasion by rodents and other household pests).

Based on the modern-day Eastern African customs, it seems most likely that, if Entebbe pots were indeed used in large public events, their main function would have been brewing of beer. Unfortunately, the archaeological sciences are not yet able to test this possibility (give it time, I say), but Ashley (p. 155) does point out that the internal grooves characteristic of so many Entebbe pots may well have been designed to “retain residues from previous brews to act as fermentation agents, or alternatively, as an abrasive to help mash the ingredients together”.


Entebbe pot (Ashley 2010: 155).

In short, from unspectacular (if, often, finely made) everyday items, Ashley is able to produce a simple but persuasive narrative of social change through time, from small-scale societies where one’s life revolves around one’s family unit, to medium/large-scale societies in which significant effort is invested in public events intended to create bonds between different family units within a community.

I think this is pretty cool. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s pretty cool.


Ashley, C. 2010. Towards a socialised archaeology of ceramics in East Africa. African Archaeology Review 27: 135-163.

Henrickson, E. and M. McDonald. 1983. Ceramic forms and function: an ethnographic search and an archaeological application. American Anthropologist 85(3): 630-643.


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